A Bipartisan Energy Committee Stuck in a Partisan Senate

Amy Harder
National Journal

What good is a bipartisan committee if the bills it passes almost never become law? That’s a conundrum plaguing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which prides itself on being a bipartisan oasis in an otherwise gridlocked Congress.

The committee is by far the most successful panel so far this year in reporting out bills. Of the 32 measures that Senate committees have approved through the month of May, 20 of them have come from the Energy panel, according to Library of Congress records. Yet none of those bills has passed the full Senate—let alone become law—and it’s unclear when any of them will get floor time or enough support to be approved by unanimous consent, which doesn’t require a vote.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is instead devoting floor time to other priorities that are either certain to pass, such as a water infrastructure bill, or have more public support behind them, such as gun control.

“He’s such a strong supporter of this cause of renewable energy and conservation,” Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said recently of Reid. “He’s got to juggle a very challenging set of schedules. He’s been in constant contact with me, and we are continuing to find a bipartisan path forward.”

For a well-known optimist, Wyden struck a more muted tone than he usually does. He has good reason to be cautious. The Senate hasn’t passed a substantive energy bill since 2007, despite the panel’s approval of major energy legislation in 2009 that established a national renewable electricity standard and a host of smaller bills.

Instead, the overwhelming majority of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee’s measures that eventually become law might be best described as earmarks for public lands: parochial measures whose effects are narrowly confined to small land areas in specific regions or states.

For instance, a bill President Obama signed into law in January established Pinnacles National Park in California as part of the National Park Service. The House cosponsors were California Republican Jeff Denham and Democrat Sam Farr, and the lone Senate sponsor of the seven-page bill was Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Four days after signing that bill, Obama signed into law another measure authorizing the Interior secretary to issue right-of-way permits for natural-gas pipelines in Glacier National Park. The bill, which is a mere 316 words long, was sponsored by Montana’s two Democratic senators, Jon Tester and Max Baucus, and Montana’s then-Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican.

Despite the bipartisanship and narrow scope of these public-lands bills, Congress is now having a hard time passing even this type of legislation. The Energy Committee passed 23 bills last Congress that received Obama’s signature to become law—the lowest total since at least 1999, according to the Congressional Record. The vast majority of these measures, 22 of them, were confined to a land or water issue in a specific region.

Obama did sign a massive public-lands package of 160 individual bills into law in March 2009, which created 2 million acres of wilderness. But all the work on that legislation had actually been done during the previous congressional session, when George W. Bush was president. Reid simply ran out of time to bring the bill to the floor in 2008.

Since then, and since the enactment of the 900-page health care bill in March 2010, Congress has been unable or unwilling to move most big legislative packages. Layered on top of this gridlock are problems inherent to energy policy that make moving energy bills of all sizes especially difficult.

“We’ve always had the problem in the Senate for at least the last several decades that if you bring an energy-related bill to the Senate floor, you’re going to get amendments on all kinds of subjects that have tangential relation to the bill you’re trying to pass,” said former Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, who was the top Democrat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee for 14 years and chairman of the panel for seven years, including the last five through 2012. “That’s why both the 2005 and 2007 energy bills ended up being so large and covering so many subjects. It’s very difficult as a practical matter to get a rifle-shot type of energy bill through Congress.”

Because Congress doesn’t pass many large bills, energy measures get jammed by amendment fights over partisan issues like the Keystone XL pipeline and climate-change regulations. But Wyden is determined to make this time different. He is putting together a package from the 20 bills the committee has already OK’d and 30 House measures it has approved.

“Chairman Wyden is working on clearing objections to put together a package that can pass the Senate,” Wyden spokesman Keith Chu said.

Still, Wyden faces the tough task of succeeding where Bingaman could not, given the obstacles to energy policy in the Senate have not decreased since the previous Congress.

“I’m sure Senator Wyden is pursuing all possible avenues to get the bills considered in the full Senate,” Bingaman said. “I don’t want to be in the business of trying to give advice on what to do when I wasn’t able to do it myself.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the party affiliation of Sam Farr; he is a Democrat.